Officials from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan agreed on Monday to launch a special working group that will work to restore the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-biggest lake but now shrunken to just a fraction of its original size.
“We agreed with colleagues from Kyrgyzstan to create a working group and work on existing water issues on an ongoing, daily basis,” said Magzum Mirzagaliyev, who heads Kazakhstan’s ecology, geology and natural resources agency, according to a report by Tengrinews.
Mirzagaliyev’s remarks were made during a meeting with officials and ecology experts gathered in Bishkek and came after President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s recent visit to neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
Kazakhstan and other four countries in the region — Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, have long been working to help stop the total disappearance of the Aral Sea, which has all but completely dried up over the past 40 years.
The Aral Sea once occupied the territory of 68,000 square kilometers (26,300 square miles) on the border between southwestern Kazakhstan and northwestern Uzbekistan, but today its surface area measures 8,300 square kilometers (3,200 square miles), or just 12 percent of its original volume.
Soviet-era policies are much to blame for the problem, as they led to an environmental disaster after the waters of the Amu Darya River, which used to flow into the Aral, began to sink into Uzbekistan’s cotton fields. As a result, the sea split into what are now two salt lakes: the South Aral Sea or “Large Sea,” located mainly within Uzbekistan’s borders, and the North Aral Sea, also called “The Small Sea,” in Kazakhstan. At the same time, the climate in the surrounding areas became more arid, while winters became colder. Today, the region suffers from annual windstorms that carry millions of tons of salt-containing large quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
In 1993, the region’s countries teamed up to create the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) – an international organization engaged in the issues related to water resources and environmental management. In 2016, officials in Kyrgyzstan have announced that the country would suspend its participation in the IFAS due to the fact that the organization did not meet the interests and needs of the country, and still does not involve in its activities.
The parties to the Fund have already undertaken hundreds of efforts to help eliminate the consequences of the sea’s disappearance. For example, Kazakhstan’s government allocated $85 million for the construction of the Dike Kokaral dam, which runs along the narrow stretch of water separating the North Aral Sea from the South Sea. Uzbekistan, in turn, planted protective plantations of Haloxylon and other salt-tolerant plant species in about 350,000 hectares in areas that once formed the seabed. This week, officials in Tashkent announced that the country has resumed planting species at the bottom of the Aral.
Meanwhile, the disaster has attracted Moscow’s attention after Peter Zavyalov, a deputy director at the Moscow-based Institute of Oceanology, said the rivers of Siberia can help restore the Aral Sea and solve water management issue.
“This is not about transferring all or even one of the Siberian rivers to Central Asia, but about transferring only seven percent of the Irtysh river flow,” he said Monday, according to a report by Sputnik.
“This is unlikely to create a threat to the ecology of Russia. And for Central Asia, such an amount of water would be significant in terms of solving problems,” he added.